Burning billions

January 16, 2008 11:00 pm

The federal government's approach to managing public forests is akin to a corn farmer who neglects his crop and then, after the field catches fire, empties his bank account hiring people to pour water on acres of charred cobs.

It's wasteful, to put the matter bluntly.

During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2007, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1.34 billion fighting wildfires.

Those blazes scorched millions of trees that were valuable not only in the purely economic sense — as raw material for lumber and other wood products — but in other ways as well, such as supplying shelter for wildlife and shading water so it stays cool enough for fish.

The loss of that incalculable value is a tragedy.

But it's not the only one, because the final butcher's bill includes not only the aforementioned losses, but also the more than a billion of taxpayers' bucks the Forest Service doled out to douse the flames.

Oregon's Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden, wants to scrap that sort of accounting.

Wyden intends to introduce legislation soon that he hopes will enable the Forest Service to do considerably more "thinning" projects, which are supposed to reduce the fire risk.

The concept of thinning — cutting some trees, usually the smaller, more fire-prone ones, in crowded forests — dates back at least a couple of decades. But so far the Forest Service's progress has been slower than proponents, including Wyden, expected.

Although thinning is simple in theory, in practice it has been less so.

The preference for cutting smaller trees, which are worth little or nothing to mills, has in many cases prompted Forest Service officials to include bigger, more valuable trees to entice loggers to bid on the projects, even though those bigger trees are less susceptible to fire than the smaller trees.

But the prospect of felling older trees bothers environmental groups. They have filed appeals or lawsuits that forced the Forest Service to delay, or cancel, thinning projects.

Wyden said he wants to avoid such delays. That's a good goal, and the way to achieve it is to make sure the fire-prone trees get cut, even if that means the Forest Service has to pay someone to wield the chain saw.

We'd rather the government spend money to harvest a valuable commodity, than spend billions putting out fires that have transformed that commodity into ash. And you can't build much of a house out of ash.